Easter Thoughts on Ritual, “FreeThinkers,” Religion, and De-Conversions

At the most basic level a “ritual” is something we do repeatedly in a particular way. Rituals can be religious or non-religious, individual and/or communal. Washing our hands after using the restroom, saying “please” or “thank you,” or getting coffee from Dunkin Donuts before work is just as much a ritual as praying before a meal, going to church once a week, or making a sign of the cross before receiving the elements. We often take our own rituals for granted. Actually, some communities (both religious and non-religious) pretend they don’t have rituals… In these circles “rituals” or “traditions” are thought of as taboo. As if we could ever separate ourselves from rituals or could live non-ritualistically. This is silly, and nonsensical. Everyone is surrounded by rituals. This is neither a bad thing, nor something we can avoid. From atheist, to agnostic to non-denominational Christian, to Roman Catholic, to Baptist, to Greek Orthodox, to Muslim, Buddhist, Christian-Buddhist, and everything in-between – we all ritualize our lives and are then formed by these rituals. Naturally we change our rituals over time (for a million different reasons), or we find ourselves in alternative ritualistic communities, but we are never rid of them. For example, maybe we change our religion, or our job, we go on a new diet or we move into a different neighborhood, etc. When we do these things, we enter new ritualistic communities. Of course in our Western pluralistic world there are virtually no “trans” or “monolithic” rituals but all-the-while rituals exist and weave themselves around us. As humans, we are ritualistically soaked through and through on many different levels. Oftentimes when we enter a community which is so different ritualistically than what we experienced previously, we go through a sort of “culture shock.” I remember feeling this way when I arrived at Gordon-Conwell… it seemed everyone around me had Ph.D’s and dreamed of spending the rest of their lives in the classroom somehow… Suddenly the “geeks” were the cool ones, GPA mattered, and people liked talking about what they were writing about. As someone who never viewed my academics as an intrinsic part of who I was… this took me a while to figure out… not only how I thought about it but also how I live in the midst of such an academically centralized ritualistic environment. Most of the world isn’t like this… “Normal” here is very different than what I previously thought of as “normal.” We all go through these processes in our own ways. I was shocked because the rituals here are different from the rituals of my previous community, and the community before that. This is true even within communities of the same name – for example, when I started going to an Anglican church I started having to think very differently about a lot of different issues even though it was technically just as “Christian” as the churches I had previously attended.

Our rituals are very important aspects of ourselves. Through “ritual”  we understand ourselves. It is how our identities are formed both as individuals and as a society as a whole. As we believe we do… And as we perform our beliefs, we also become more ingrained into a particular “system,” whatever that system may be. I’ve recently become aware of Robert Wuthnow’s book, Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith. He surveys a bunch of Jews and Christians and asks them why they stayed within their own respective faith-communities as they grew older… the almost unanimous answer was: ritual. Just this morning before church, Kaylyn had a pandora station which was playing songs such as “How Great Thou Art, This is my Father’s World, Great is thy Faithfulness, etc. It was a piano-only station, but I could sing along and could recite all the words. Kaylyn said, “I feel like we are back at First Free again” (the church I grew up in)! These hymns were often sung at church and they have become a core part of not only my memory of my childhood but also my understanding of God. Rituals are powerful.

I’ve lately been wondering how the reality of alternative ritualistic societies living side-by-side in our own culture affects the way we deal with each other… Specifically how does “ritual” affect the relationships between religious people and “deconverts” from those same religions? For example, how do rituals help/hurt the relationship between a Christian and someone who was a Christian and has now “deconverted” from Christianity? Especially since “deconverts” often think they are now “free” of rituals in general (in reality, they’ve only switched ritual systems) and at the same time many Christians don’t also realize the amount to which they are shaped by the particularly distinctive Christian rituals of their own particular Christian community.  This can lead to both sides missing each other either in attitude or conversation. It leads to a lot of difficulties, notwithstanding the linguistic component… Christians and Atheists typically talk very differently about the world and often mean different things when they are talking about the same terms. This makes our relationship with each other, complicated. Sometimes the “deconverted” people will act like particular Christian rituals are really outdated or weird simply because they are “religious” in nature, and thus are a defining aspect of that religious community. As if the “free-thinking” societies or the atheist who sits at home and doesn’t go to church doesn’t have his/her own unique language and traditions, or “rituals” (which are ironically sometimes just as religious or faith-based)… just go to their meetings or to their houses and you’ll see very quickly that their lives are lived just as ritualistically as your church “lives and breathes” down the street. Sometimes the deconverted seem angry, disengaged, or may even give a vibe of superiority. As if they know some sort of wonderful secret none of the other people have… I don’t think they mean to seem this way… after all, no one thinks that’s cool.  Still, I’ve often wondered why? What is it about their deconversion which makes them act in such ways? I mean, it kind of makes sense… the reason you “leave” one community and go to another is because implicitly you think somehow that other community is better than the former. In the same way, this is one of the reasons some religious communities don’t get along with others outside of their own specific religious community… these religious people (Christians, for example) are so enmeshed in their own rituals that when they hear of another community doing something differently… they get a bit upset, (WHAT????!!! You guys do THAT?????? UGHHHH). Even worse, sometimes religious people speak to non-religious people condescendingly… As if anyone who isn’t also a Christian must be an idiot… Let’s admit it, as a Christian, it’s  difficult to know what to do with the person who doesn’t see the Christian rituals as important in the first place… and vice versa. There seems to be virtually no common ground… if we don’t share ritual, what do we share with each other and from what base or “home” can we speak to each other?

I think one important step in fixing this chasm is for both sides to realize how ritualistically soaked they are.  At this point in history, not many would argue  that any one ritualistic realm is intrinsically better than another (whether that be “science,”  “religion,” “educational systems,” etc.). None of us are ritualistically neutral in this category. If we have a full understanding of this and embrace this aspect of ourselves, then in our conversations with one another we won’t make assumptions… even if we are using the same terms, we could be talking about different things since our “ritualistic understandings” are worlds apart. So this will force us to ask of the “other” the most basic meanings of what they are talking about. For example, what does that other person think of when they say, “good,” or “bad,” or “God,” or “Christianity,” or “science,” etc. If we realize our own ritualistic soakedness, we will be forced to listen to each other since we are experiencing life in such different and unique ways. How can we get along if we don’t first understand the other? I’m not sure if it is more difficult for the Christian or for the “deconverted” person to listen well… and learn… to not assume anything about the other. I’ve been on both sides and it’s difficult either way. No matter how “right” we feel, we should never believe ourselves to be superior to anyone else, for any reason.

Rituals remind us we are all on the same level, and we could be wrong at any moment. So let’s stop, and listen… We may be surprised by what we hear.